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The Hangover

Updated on March 24, 2012

A hangover is the term commonly used for a group of unpleasant symptoms often experienced after an episode of excessive and usually intoxicating use of alcoholic beverages. The name is derived from the fact that these symptoms appear after the intoxication has subsided and alcohol no longer remains in the body. Sometimes the condition lasts for as long as 36 hours.



The most common symptoms of hangover are headache, dizziness, gastric distress, hyperacidity (heartburn), thirst, and depression. In more severe cases, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and tremulousness may also occur. Apart from individual differences among people, the severity of the hangover is generally proportional to the degree and duration of the preceding intoxication. Recent research has indicated that the severity of the hangover may also be related to the amount of fusel oils and other organic esters in the beverages. The amount of these substances varies widely in different drinks.

The symptoms of a typical hangover are primarily physiological in origin. However, in alcoholics with a history of repeated destructive and asocial drinking behavior, psychological factors, such as anxiety, guilt, and remorse, may play an important role. It has also been suggested that in some persons who have developed a physical dependence on alcohol, some hangover symptoms may be withdrawal symptoms.


Because of alcohol's irritating effect on the stomach tissue, excessive ingestion causes gastritis and the oversecretion of acid. The presence of alcohol throughout the body causes a migration of water from within to outside the cells, and the resulting abnormal distribution of water and salts creates thirst and headache. The neurological effects of alcohol on the central nervous system include an involvement of the ear's vestibular mechanism, which, in combination with the gastritis, produces nausea and dizziness. All of these disturbances persist until remission naturally occurs through the normal restorative processes of the body.


There are no known drugs that will counteract the effects of alcohol. The only certain way to prevent a hangover is to avoid excessive drinking. However, appropriate medications, such as aspirin and gastric antacids, can alleviate some of the acute symptoms.


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